The Future of Hasidic Williamsburg
Jonathan Boyarin on Nathaniel Deutsch, Michael Casper, Nomi Stolzenberg, and David Myers
If you’ve recently driven along Route 17 in Orange County, New York, some miles northwest of its intersection with the New York Thruway at Monroe, you may have noticed a billboard with Hebrew lettering announcing, “Satmar boyet!” (Satmar builds). It’s on my regular commute between Washington Heights and Ithaca. I haven’t yet slowed down long enough to catch the smaller print, but I’m pretty sure I know what the billboard announces. It brings good news about housing developments for the families of Satmar and perhaps other allied groups of Hasidim, pushed out by the high cost of housing in Williamsburg and by now, even the dearth of available housing in the nearby new town of Palm Tree, named for the late Satmar Rebbe Reb Yoel Teitlbaum. And while the Hebrew script doubtless catches the eye of its intended audience, it’s also a mark of discretion, perhaps intentionally aiming not to further arouse the anxiety and resentment of non-Hasidic neighbors at the threat to their once-bucolic and now classically suburban way of life.
You can see part of Palm Tree itself from Route 17 itself. Until recently it was officially the village of Kiryas Joel, and doubtless its residents still use that name. The village itself grew in the 1980s out of a combination of Reb Yoelish’s vision of a place for his people free from the distractions and temptations of New York City, housing pressure, and notions about appropriate zoning that clashed with those of other residents in the Town of Monroe, New York.
Although I lived just across the East River from the Satmar “homeland” of Williamsburg for decades, I knew little about Kiryas Joel until I became a law student in the late 1990s. In my Constitutional Law textbook, I read about the 1994 case that came before the United States Supreme Court, challenging New York State legislation that created a new school district coextensive with the village itself. The school district was designed to (and to this day does) serve only special education students. Perhaps in part because I had a young “special” child myself, I decided to write my law journal student “Note” about the case. I did write that Note, and I said to myself: “I’m an anthropologist! I won’t write about Kiryas Joel without visiting the place and talking to people.”
Reader, it turns out I’m a bad anthropologist. I didn’t visit Kiryas Joel then, and I didn’t talk to the people. Williamsburg would have been a shorter commute, and I thought of doing fieldwork there many years later when I had finally become a professor–but I fell in love with a Litvish-style yeshiva instead.
Two pairs of scholars—Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper for Williamsburg, and Nomi Stolzenberg and David Myers for Kiryas Joel—have now achieved what I never began. Anyone interested in the future of Jews in diaspora (not only Hasidic Jews) should be grateful to them for what they’ve accomplished. The two volumes complement each other wonderfully. Deutsch and Casper focus on the development of Hasidic Williamsburg from the immediate post-World War II era to the present. Stolzenberg and Myers reach back further, detailing the origins of Satmar Hasidus and Reb Yoelish’s early career in Europe, but devote most of their time to the new settlement in Kiryas Joel.
Clearly both of these books were many years in the making. Both are fine-grained in their narrative, offering impressively detailed documentation, leaving plenty of room for the interplay of contingency, strong and often clashing personalities, and the larger structural issues of capital, territory, and state law. Both pairs of authors draw on interviews with key players. Stolzenberg and Myers rely heavily on court papers, while Deutsch and Casper copiously cite journalistic accounts dating to the times they describe, frequently providing rich quotations that give the reader a strong sense of the temper of the times.
It may not be too much to say that these two books signal a second round of “Satmar studies.” Half a century ago and more, Solomon Poll wrote about The Hasidic Community of Williamsburg and Israel Rubin gave us Satmar: An Island in the City. In those books, the focus was more on the maintenance of an internal economy and other strategies of communal boundary-making. In the meantime, the mainstream Jewish agencies that have been concerned about intermarriage and declining birthrates seem to have drawn scant comfort from the growth of Hasidic populations in the United States. Most studies of Hasidic communities that have been published in recent decades (with notable exceptions, especially Ayala Fader’s Mitzvah Girls) focus on those departing or at the margins. And most recent ethnography of US Hasidic communities, such as Henry Goldschmidt’s insightful Race and Religion among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heights, has focused on Chabad Lubavitch. No surprise in either case: people who’ve gone “off the derech,” in this respect like (lehavdil!) Chabad missionaries, are easier to talk to than the Hasidim who are primarily concerned with the well-being and integrity of their own communities.
Fortress and American Shtetl amply document the internal preoccupation of Satmar Hasidim (and the other Hasidim of Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel) with their own communities. But they also make it amply clear that these people are anything but “stuck in the eighteenth century” or “remarkable holdouts against modernity.” The trend to study hasidei de-ara, “material Hasidim” rather than focusing exclusively on ideology or intellectual history, was first named by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern and is identified with historiographers of European Hasidism such as Marcin Wodzinski or Glenn Dynner. It is ably brought forward in time and closer in space in both of these books. Given the rapid pace of change and the intense interaction between collective identity and capital in New York City, Deutsch and Casper’s ability to produce a narrative that is coherent without being reductive is especially impressive.
As suggested at the outset, housing tensions constitute a major running theme of both books, from the struggle to have Hasidim (not all Jews!) recognized as an underprivileged minority entitled to their own share of newly-built Brooklyn public housing, on to the recent expansion of Kiryas Joel and its transformation into Palm Tree. For Stolzenberg and Myers, however, the entanglement of education with the doctrine of separation of church and state probably gets the most sustained attention, especially since it was the subject of the Supreme Court litigation mentioned above. By contrast, Deutsch and Casper, who otherwise do an admirable job of bringing the story up almost to the time of printing by including reflections on the Covid-19 crisis, barely mention the recent controversy between the government of New York City and various yeshivas (in Williamsburg and elsewhere) about the allegedly inadequate teaching of secular subjects.
These books complement each other so remarkably well that it’s tempting to think of Fortress and American Shtetl as volumes 1 and 2, respectively. And of course the creation of Hasidic Williamsburg came before the settlement and organization of Kiryas Joel. Yet the subject matter of the two books cannot be mapped out quite so neatly in time and space. Both, of course, deal richly with the theme of the novelty of tradition—a theme already announced decades ago in the title of Egon Mayer’s book about the transformation of Jewish Boro Park From Suburb to Shtetl (1979). It would be wrong to think of Hasidic Williamsburg as “the old” or of Kiryas Joel as “the new.” As Deutsch and Casper lucidly explain, the expansion of Hasidic “territory” beyond Williamsburg has been part and parcel of the revitalization and gentrification of Brooklyn more generally. And if Satmar and other Hasidim have become prominent in the real estate business, that is partly because of capital they had accumulated earlier in local industrial enterprises, and also because they remained in parts of Brooklyn when most of the “white” people (including other Jews) had left—and were therefore in a good situation to take advantage of the upturn. On the other hand, while Kiryas Joel is obviously an expansion out of the urban stronghold, it also represents in some measure an attempt to withdraw and maintain a level of purity supposedly associated with the ancestors.
Both books do a good job of presenting “the other side”—not only the legal and political arguments, but the people, as well. Until I read American Shtetl, to me Louis Grumet only existed as the plaintiff in the Kiryas Joel litigation. (Nor did I know, for example, about the pivotal role of George Pataki in suggesting the creation of a special school district.) The book not only told me who he was and why he brought the suit, but situated his opposition to the Kiryas Joel school board squarely in an American liberal and integrationist tradition that (at least until recent decades) was certainly shared by most non-traditionalist Jews in the United States. Similarly, Deutsch and Casper provide us not only with what Hasidic figures in Williamsburg said about their situation (at the time or in retrospect), but also with the arguments and reflections of their Puerto Rican neighbors.
Both books, also, deal centrally with the tension between traditionalism and dynamism, between the desire to stick together and the pressing need for more space. If there is an overriding goal for both books, beyond but grounded in the precious documentation each provides, it seems to be resisting a certain mystification associated with these Jewish “men in black” as a people apart, somehow not “our” contemporaries. (As late as 2009, the New York Times ran a piece on Hasidic Williamsburg with the headline, “A Piece of Brooklyn Perhaps Lost to Time.”) Curiously, neither quite escapes the pull of that very image: the covers of both books show an anonymous male Hasid in profile, striding along, one on a Brooklyn street and one presumably in a Kiryas Joel parking lot.
Regardless, both concentrate on the ways that these traditionalist Jews have become thoroughly “American.” To be sure (or almost sure—is there the rub?) Stolzenbeg & Myers’ title American Shtetl is accordingly ironic, meant to illustrate not so much Kiryas Joel’s actual similarity to a place like Satu Mare as the Hasidic effort to recreate the imagined pious community of their ancestors. In both Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel, this Americanization is displayed largely through a formidable and growing ability to work effectively with the secular powers that be in order to recreate the material conditions for sustaining anshey shlomeynu, “our people.” For Kiryas Joel, those powers might have been the courts or a local planning board; for Williamsburg, it was often one city or federal agency or another. But as Stolzenberg and Myers especially document, Hasidic leaders in Europe already knew how to engage in what was then called shtadlones. They make the further claim that in seeking to create a place of unity and purity out in the countryside, the founders of Kiryas Joel were working in the distinctively American (settler-colonial!) tradition of building a “city on the hill.” And they point out correctly that whatever the East European shtetl was, it was almost never an exclusively Jewish place. Still, I wonder whether what they call an ironic and unwitting form of assimilation to American norms isn’t better characterized as an agile adaptation of traditional diasporist accommodationism to changed circumstances. Likewise, I wonder whether the negotiations and tensions between Williamsburg Hasidim on one hand, and on the other hand neighborhood organizations representing African American or Puerto Rican constituencies were, as we say, “all that different” from the politics of Jews between Poles and Ukrainians in interwar Poland. Presumably, one can construct a fine-grained analysis (as both of these books admirably do) that clearly shows the novelty of the United States situation. But, again, it remains unclear whether the drive to do so is this based on some underlying assumption that in Europe, they “really” were “unassimilated.”
There’s so much more to ask about the dynamic traditionalism of these communities than could be contained in these two books, and that’s why I hope they’re indeed the harbinger of a new wave of Satmar (or more generally Haredi) studies. There are other communities, not necessarily dominated by Hasidim, that face similar issues of traditionalism, expansion, and consequent tension with mostly non-Jewish neighbors; Lakewood, New Jersey is probably the most salient of those right now. And still with respect to Williamsburg or Kiryas Joel, there are classic anthropological questions that I’d love to know more about. Who marries whom, in terms of class, residence, primary adherence to one or another Hasidic grouping? Within Satmar, do Zali families (those loyal to the Satmar scion who wound up controlling the Satmar properties in Williamsburg) commonly “intermarry” with Aharoni families (Aharon being the Satmar Rebbe in Kiryas Joel), and presuming they do, how are those interfamilial tensions dealt with? When one partner to a marriage is from Williamsburg and one is from Kiryas Joel, is there any common expectation about where they will settle? Beyond the real estate entrepreneurs and beyond the sophisticated techniques to secure Section 8 housing and other benefits, how do Satmar and related Hasidic families earn a living? Deutsch and Casper treat us to a photograph, dated 1993, of a Hasidic woman sitting at a sewing machine in a Williamsburg textile factory. What is she or her children doing for a living now?
I don’t know how many Hasidic readers these books will attract. But at the very least, they should effectively remind those who do take the time to read them that these “traditionalist,” “ultra-Orthodox,” “Haredi” Jews are the reader’s contemporaries—and that you or I, too, just like Deutsch, Casper, Stolzenberg and Myers—might want to take some time and effort to get to know them better.
Jonathan Boyarin is Diann G. and Thomas A. Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University.